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Acute Diarrhea


What is acute diarrhea?

Acute diarrhea starts quickly and lasts a short time, usually 1 to 3 days. It can last up to 2 weeks. You may not be able to control your diarrhea. Acute diarrhea usually stops on its own.

What causes acute diarrhea?

  • Bacteria, such as E coli or salmonella
  • Viruses, such as rotavirus and norovirus
  • Food allergies, such as with lactose products (milk or cheese) or soy protein
  • Contaminated food, such as meat that is undercooked
  • Contaminated water, such as water from a stream
  • Medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation
  • Medicines, such as laxatives, antacids, or antibiotics

What other signs and symptoms may happen with acute diarrhea?

  • Stomach pain, or a fever higher than 103°F with chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache, or abdominal pain
  • Symptoms of dehydration such as thirst, decreased urination, dry skin, sunken eyes, or fast, pounding heartbeat.

What does my healthcare provider need to know about my acute diarrhea?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your diarrhea, such as what it looks like and when it started. He may ask if you have any blood or mucus in your diarrhea. He will ask what you have eaten recently and if you have traveled to other countries. He will ask what medicines you use or if you have been around anyone who is sick. Tell your healthcare provider about any other symptoms you have. Your healthcare provider may check you for signs and symptoms of dehydration.

How is acute diarrhea treated and managed?

  • Diarrhea medicine is an over-the-counter medicine that helps slow or stop your diarrhea.
  • Antibiotics may be given to help treat a bacterial infection.

How can acute diarrhea be managed?

  • Drink plenty of liquids. This will help to prevent dehydration. Ask how much liquid you should drink each day and which liquids are best for you. Avoid coffee and alcohol.
  • Drink oral rehydration solution. Oral rehydration solution (ORS) has the right amounts of water, salts, and sugar that you need to replace lost body fluids. Ask what kind of ORS you should use, how much to drink, and where to get it.
  • Continue to eat regular foods. Choose foods that you can tolerate. These may include rice, potatoes, and bread. It also includes some fruits (bananas, melon), well-cooked vegetables, lean meats, yogurt, and skim or 1% milk. Avoid foods high in fiber, fat, and sugar. Ask your healthcare provider for more information about foods you can eat while you have acute diarrhea.

How can acute diarrhea be prevented?

  • Wash your hands. Wash your hands well and often, such as each time you use the bathroom or before you cook. Use waterless hand gel when you are in a place where you cannot wash your hands.
  • Keep bathroom surfaces clean to help prevent the spread of germs that cause acute diarrhea.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well before eating.
  • Wash kitchen counters and cooking utensils well after you have prepared any raw meats.
  • Place raw meat in the refrigerator as soon as possible after shopping at the supermarket. Bacteria can grow in meat that is left at room temperature too long. Cook meat thoroughly before eating. Place leftovers in the refrigerator as soon as possible.
  • Avoid unsterilized water and uncooked vegetables when you travel to foreign countries.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You are unable to drink any liquids.
  • Your eyes look deeply sunken, or you have no tears when you cry.
  • You urinate less than usual, or your urine is dark yellow.
  • Your heartbeat is faster than normal.
  • You have blood or mucus in your stools.
  • You have severe abdominal pain.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your have mild or moderate abdominal pain.
  • You have a fever higher than 101.3°F.
  • You have trouble eating and drinking because of vomiting.
  • You are thirsty or have a dry mouth.
  • You urinate less than usual.
  • You feel tired, restless, or irritated.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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